Map of the Heart’s Sarah Blair interviews fragrance expert, author, and Fragrances of the World founder Michael Edwards. Meeting in a restaurant during a trip to Milan, Blair and Edwards discuss the importance of fragrance classification, his latest projects, including Pierre Dinand’s exhibition ‘Perfume Legends’, and how the fragrance market evolved in the 20th Century.

After all these years of travelling, is there a singular scent memory you are always intrigued by?

Smell has always intrigued me. I spent my school years at boarding schools, the last a Jesuit college. I remember as a boy of perhaps 13 or 14 buying a bottle of lavender. It was a masculine lavender which came in a tiny bottle. Its smell gave me enormous pleasure, I remember. Occasionally, I’d dab a bit on. Men didn’t wear fragrances then so I wasn’t going to announce my interest in it … but it was my first olfactory memory.

I knew what my mother wore, Soir de Paris and No.5, but I have no memory of their scent.

I was born and spent my early boyhood in Malawi, a remote central Africa country. There, the African women would scent bathwater with woods shaving. The scent was a dry but honeyed woody note. Its memory haunts me to this day. 

What launched your career in fragrance?

Back in the 1960s, I trained in marketing, working on fast moving consumer toiletries. Competition was fierce but things happened so much more quickly then than today. As a junior brand manager on the shampoo group, I became particularly intrigued by the power of fragrance to change peoples’ perceptions. We noticed to our surprise that quite often a new fragrance prompted users to feel that the formula, the product itself had been improved. It was illogical but true.

When did you first come across the fragrance families?

In 1975, Firmenich, one of the great perfume suppliers, invited me to a fragrance workshop and presented me with a copy of their Bouquet de la Parfumerie, a technical guide to the fragrance families. I probably didn’t understand more than 5 per cent of it, but the guide became my bible. I would visit perfumeries, to smell and compare the fragrances it grouped family by family. It taught me so much.

A few years later, I moved to Paris to direct international operations for Halston. Firmenich had stopped publishing the Bouquet de la Parfumerie in 1978, but generously gave me permission to resurrect and update it. I distributed it internationally to our consultants. To their surprise – and my delight - perfume doggies fast asleep on the shelves started barking.

The more I worked with the guide, the more I became convinced by the power of the fragrance families to help people find more easily perfumes which they would enjoy. Ask anyone for their favourite three or fours fragrance and almost invariably one finds that at least two of them fall into the same fragrance family. Why? We still don’t know.

What about people who name five or six perfumes that all belong to different families? The only certainty is that they must love perfume to have developed so broad a taste. Ask for more favourites and you’ll find that one or two families hold a special appeal. I was totally convinced that the fragrance families made it easy for anyone to explore the myriad choices on the market, and to find the fragrances that would suit their taste.

I became convinced by the power of the fragrance families to help people find more easily perfumes which they would enjoy. Ask anyone for their favourite three or fours fragrance and almost invariably one finds that at least two of them fall into the same fragrance family. Why? We still don’t know.

What led you to Australia?

Halston lost control of his licenses in the early ‘80s, and retired, a hurt and bruised man. Shortly afterwards, I was transferred to Australia, to integrate the Halston and Orlane companies with Max Factor. I’d been there only three months when Norton Simon, the international company that owned Halston, was taken over by another multinational. Two months later, I was out. Flabbergasted? Of course. But when one door closes, another often opens. I opened Michael Edwards & Co, focusing on training and the in-store use of the fragrance families. To support the fragrance workshops, I developed my first guide in 1984 because no other was available. It listed some 300 fragrances. I recommended consultants ask customers for the names of their favourite scents. Then, one by one with them, look up the family or families to which they belonged. Again, and again … and again they found that one or two families held the key.

My clients reported that the first guide near doubled their sales’ opportunity, so I updated it the next year, then in 1986 and 1987. In 1988, Nordstrom, the innovative American specialty store, found a copy. Add more American fragrances, they asked.

In 1991, Nordstrom asked me to added men’s fragrances, and that’s how I came the first to match male and female fragrances. It sounds weird but even today most brands have different genealogies, different ways of describing masculine and feminine fragrances. It never made sense to me: smell is smell.

Absolutely.

However, the problem was that 80 to 85 per cent of customers in American and European department stores and perfumeries are women. And women have very little faith in the fragrance judgement of their men in their life, so they tend to buy the fragrance they like … and men get used to it! That was why I matched men’s and women’s fragrances, family by family.

How did the book continue to develop?

As Nordstrom came to relied on the guide more and more, I had to ensure that the brands were comfortable with my classifications. I wish I could report that they were willing to pay for listing their fragrances. Dream on! But to gain their support, I decided that we would list all fragrances free of charge. To, ensure our impartiality, we would not accept advertising or sponsorship. It worked. As the only impartial and independent fragrance authority in the industry, I could work with all brands and perfumers. Life was easier in 1984 when there were only 29 new releases. Last year, there were 2,600 and my team and I are gypsies, travelling the world to keep in touch with the brands!

Do you think that the expansion of niche will continue, or will it always remain 5 to 7% of the rest of the market?

No, I’m pretty sure that it will triple within the next ten years to more than 20 per cent.

Niche is the biggest growth category today. It’s simply the next stage in the evolution of luxury.

Fragrance has come a long way since Charlie changed the whole game in ’73. Charlie tickled the imagination of a new generation of American women who had moved from the home to the workplace. By the end of the ‘70s, women were spending more money on buying fragrances for themselves than men were spending on fragrance gifts. An explosion of creativity followed in the 1980s. Think Giorgio, Obsession, Beautiful and Poison.

My mother was a Giorgio wearer. How did the market change after Giorgio

Retailers are interested in essentially two things - stock turn, and the ability of a product to bring customers through the door. Giorgio did both. It was the first fragrance to demonstrate that perfume was a core product, far more than an accessory. Like Charlie and Opium, it was a game changer.

Fast forward to the ‘90s, and discounting reared its head. In the 1980s, the gentrification of American cities had started to squeeze department store profits. From as far back as the 1950s, they had relied on new stores to bring home the bacon. As American suburbs grew, so new shopping malls followed, each anchored by a major department or specialty store. 

With Giorgio’s success, fragrance became a hot category and store buyers were plagued with discount merchants asking to buy 20,000 bottles of Giorgio, 15,000 bottles of Opium … for cash. Inevitable, a couple succumbed to the temptation. The brands managed to contain the problem … until the 1991 Gulf war. That brought Duty Free business, a large contributor to the brands’ profits, to its knees. By then, most key fragrance brands were owned by one or another multinational. For them, despite the war, a budget remained a budget. To the horror of upscale American department stores, discounting once again became the name of the game.

In each innovative brand, I find that there’s often just one visionary, occasionally two, who had the passion, the instinct, and the persistency to create something extraordinary. The corporate world believes that they’ve acquired is a magical recipe that can be transferred. Mostly, it’s simply not true.

Realistically, they had to discontinue fragrances that were then available at discounters. So, one by one, they let go many once-great names. What to replace them with was the key problem. Consider the desperate search by upscale stores for new, pristine, interesting fragrances. Add to that women who had grown up with Charlie and Opium, relished the excitement of prestigious fragrances in the 1980s; and now, were ready for a new and different experience. Enter the tiny Parisian niche Houses: Diptyque, Penhaligon’s, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Annick Goutal, Etro. Small yes, but so interesting. Unknown to most people, they became the solution. Few imagined that within twenty years they would revitalize the entire market and once again make perfume exciting.

The niche market became an explosion of creativity, much of it silly, but every now and again a brand was launched that made one go “Ah!”. Think Éditions de Parfums, Byredo or Escentric Molecule. In effect, niche became the nursery school of perfumery. The major brands today can rarely afford to innovate. Mostly, it is too risky. How much more sensible then to acquire niche brands with a proven ability to excite consumers. Under Lauder’s guidance, Jo Malone and Tom Ford Private Blend turned into global mega-brands. What might happen with Le Labo, Atelier Cologne and Penhaligon’s?

That’s very interesting. Working in our advertising film business, we see the pressures of the majors and how hard it is for them to innovate and take risks.  And so, you can see that if a niche brand develops, and a major house buys it for 10 or 20 million dollars, that’s a whole lot cheaper than a major trying create the new brand themselves.

So, as you say, the niche brand has been incubated. You can see as soon as a brand has been bought because they are suddenly more present and can actually grow. The buyer knows they have a solid base to build from, and still enormous amount of blue sky above. It’s a win, win for these brands.

The key is to harness the people whose passion created the brand.

It can be said for anything. Really successful creations always centre around great collaborations. Even in our business, Jeff and I, who are not from the perfume industry, have Giovanna as our partner, and she’s been able to develop the fragrances in a way we want them to be developed. You can only go so far with good instincts.

In each innovative brand, I find that there’s often just one visionary, occasionally two, who had the passion, the instinct, and the persistency to create something extraordinary. The corporate world believes that they’ve acquired is a magical recipe that can be transferred. Mostly, it’s simply not true.

Do you think that the way you classify perfumes has changed the way people think about and approach fragrances?

No, I don’t. My classifications are useful simply because they have become perfumery’s only universal language. With the help of the brands and the perfumers, I’ve matched some 29,000 fragrances family by family, fragrance by fragrance. It’s made it a lot easier for people to find the perfumes that they’ll most enjoy.

I don’t believe that people are really that interested in the fragrance families. They become interesting only when we bring them to life. That’s why I often recommend that perfumeries’ merchandise by brand on the shelves, but testers by family. I’d encourage them to build a Fragrance Wheel in the centre of the perfumery, with the fragrance testers sitting on each family. That approach gives them the best of both worlds and brings the families to life.

Speaking about ingredients in perfume, people always want to know what the notes are. I guess you have a similar language in wine, but if you were thinking about music for example, you normally talk about how it makes you feel, unless you’re a musician. I think it’s interesting because some brands don’t mention ingredients at all…

So often, though, one is presented with a laundry list of rare or unknown ingredients. Limit it to just 3 key notes would be my recommendation. Any more and one runs the risk of confusing people.

I was speaking to a journalist as she was smelling our fragrances, and I asked if she wanted to know anything about them and she said no. ‘I just want to smell it because I have this own movie in my head of what that is. I don’t want to know what your movie is.’ And I thought that was very interesting.

That’s an interesting approach. I hope we‘ll meet more people who speak with such confidence.

The one thing I’ve learnt about sales is that it is a chain of passion. I am passionate, I need the distributor, the agent, the salesperson in the store to be passionate. If at some point, the chain is broken, then it’s over.

Pierre was the first to show how a perfume’s bottle could become its symbol. He remains a creative genius. so innovative, yet shy. The exhibition was my tribute to him, a chance to let him shine again.

You are one of the creators behind the Pierre Dinand exhibition ‘Perfume Legends’. What do you think is the relationship between the bottle and the fragrance?

Pierre calls it the perfume’s little house. I once asked him a question about what makes a great successful fragrance. He described the old days when you had slot machines - which we still have in Australia. Pull the lever down and wait to see if the five cherries would line up, hoping cash would fly out. Jackpot.

The juice, the perfume, in his mind is the first win, cherry #1. Cherry #2 is the bottle. To him, it is the visual interpretation of the fragrance promise. Cherry #3 is the name of the perfume. So often, he says, in today’s crowded perfume world, the names mean nothing. They’re borrowed. Madame this. Monsieur that. They are not promises. Opium, Eternity, Angel, they offer a promise. The fourth cherry is the fragrance story, so often pretentious, overblown, sometimes silly. That authentic feeling we can share is missing.

The fifth cherry? Pierre looked at me and smiled, ‘luck’, he said.

Pierre was the first to show how a perfume’s bottle could become its symbol. 

Sadly, so often, what started as an original concept has been diluted by dull copies. I was only too happy to work Pierre on the exhibition because for the last ten years, I have watched people overlook his genius. I had shared a studio in Paris with Pierre for now 12 years. He remains a creative genius. So innovative, yet shy. The exhibition was my tribute to him, a chance to let him shine again.

He was very shy about the film we made with him and yet, I really feel that the film captured who he is. 

Are you still publishing Fragrances of the World as a hard copy book?

Yes, we took a break for a year to check whether perfumistas and perfumers still wanted us to produce the guide. The answer was a resounding ‘Yes!’.

Fragrances of the World 2019/20 will be released in September 2019 It will be the reference to some 12,000 niche, artisan and selective prestige fragrances.

Do you have any other upcoming projects? What’s next for Michael Edwards?

Yes, American Legends, the sequel to Perfume Legends. I’m hard at work on it. No one has written about the evolution of American fragrances, but their stories are so rich that it will take time to complete. Bear with me!

CREDITS

Interview by Sarah Blair
Photography by Jeffrey Darling and Fragrances of the World
Special thank you to Michael Edwards and Margaret Khoury